Monday, June 07, 2004

Saddam Hussein: Secularist?

Links updated: 4-29-07, DD

In my earlier post titled Saddam and al-Qaeda, I give my overall thoughts on Stephen Hayes' terrific new book The Connection. Cori Dauber at Rantingprofs has some interesting thoughts as well. In his book, Hayes provides a fascinating outline of the documented ties between Baathist Iraq and the al-Qaeda organization. In the process, he makes a number of very important points that I would like to discuss on a post by post basis as time permits. In particular, I want to point out how Hayes' arguments are supported by primary and secondary sources that are already in the public record.

One of Hayes' main accomplishments is to demolish once and for all the ridiculous myth that an "arch-secularist" like Saddam would never, ever, have supported a fundamentalist like bin Laden. Saddam's record, when examined closely, is hardly that of a committed secularist. During the course of his rule, Saddam openly turned to radical Islam as a tool for legitimizing his regime at home and rallying the support of Islamists throughout the Middle East. As Iraq scholar Amatzia Baram has noted, in an article cited by Hayes, this process was both rhetorical and practical:

After the government "Islamized" much of its rhetoric during the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War, President Saddam Husayn led the Ba'th party in introducing some Islamic principles into the Iraqi legal system. This started a short while before the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when Saddam made clear that whenever laws clashed with the divine Shari'a, the former must always give way. One day before the Allied bombing began the fighting in January 1991, Saddam Husayn added the slogan, "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) to the Iraqi national flag.

During the war, Saddam's rhetoric was fully Islamized in a way unparalleled by any other Arab secular leader. By implication he presented himself as the modern-day champion of Islam (mujaddid al-din). He promised his warriors that when the battle commenced, God would give them victory as had happened in the seventh-century battle of Badr, when a tiny Muslim army defeated a multitude of Meccan idol worshippers. The president also invoked the memory of a pre-Islamic battle between the Arabs and an Ethiopian invading army that had marched on Mecca with war elephants. The invaders, he promised, would be defeated in the same way that the Ethiopians had been, through a miraculous, divine intervention.


As Baram notes, Saddam continued to play the Islamist card throughout the 90's, embarking on an Islamization campaign that saw his regime build numerous mosques, implement elements of Islamic Sharia law, and regularly employ the discourse of jihad:

Following the Iraqi defeat in the war, there was no sign of a return to rational, secular rhetoric. Indeed, in 1994, when the economic embargo resulted in serious inflating and unprecedented suffering among the vast majority of Iraqis, Saddam Husayn went further by introducing punishments such as severing the right hand for theft and the death penalty for prostitution, defining these penalties as Islamic. The Iraqi president also initiated laws forbidding the public consumption of alcohol and introduced enhanced compulsory study of the Qur'an at all educational levels, including in Ba'th party branches. The most amazing step in the same direction was the declaration, in 1989, that before his death the Christian Michel 'Aflaq, founder and chief ideologue of the Ba'th party had converted to Islam. None of the deceased founder's friends or family ever heard about such a momentous decision but this did not prevent the Ba'th secular regime from making this astounding post-mortem announcement.

The Baram article was written in 2000, but Saddam's Islamization campaign continued until the end of his regime. For just one example, read this November 2002 sermon delivered in Baghdad's "Mother of all Battles" mosque, a mosque built at the express order of Saddam:

We know and believe, Oh Allah, that these hardships are a test for us and for our patience. We tell you, Oh Allah, that we are patient… and we will fight them with all kinds of weapons. Jihad, Jihad, Jihad, Jihad. Oh nation of the Koran, the nation of Muhammad, Oh Muslims: Jihad for the cause of Allah, and for defending Muhammad's holiness [sic]. Whoever does not defend Muhammad and the Koran, will not smell the aroma of paradise forever. What is the meaning of this peaceful slumber? What is the meaning of this numbness? What is the meaning of these hollow statements that do not rise to the level of the needed responsibility? Today, after the capture of Jerusalem, and after the infidels defiled the Arabian Peninsula and are threatening Arabs and Muslims, the holy places, and especially Iraq - Jihad has become an obligation of every individual Muslim [Fardh 'Ayn]. Anyone who does not comply, will find himself lost in [hell], side by side with Haman, Pharaoh and their soldiers. These are not just words of a sermon delivered from the pulpit of a mosque with enthusiasm, they are religious law. Ask the jurisprudents, if you don't know that.

This excerpt comes from the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), whose Iraq archive provides several other examples of such sermons.

In an article in the March 15, 2003 Washington Post, Anthony Shadid also noted Saddam's turn towards Islamism:

On the eve of an expected war, religious sentiment is overshadowing the secularism that once defined Iraq. Through speeches, symbols and slogans, Hussein's government has increasingly turned to Islam in its search for legitimacy, playing down the Arab nationalism that once served as its ideology. Many of its people -- Shiite Muslims and Sunnis, along with a small Christian minority -- have turned to faith, desperate for respite from the misery of war and more than a decade of sanctions.

Shadid goes on to point out Saddam's public role in fostering this process:

Hussein has poured religious rhetoric into his speeches, urging Iraqis to defend their country. Sympathetic religious leaders are fond of pointing out that he claims descent from the prophet Muhammad's family. Despite meager resources and the relentless repression of any organized religious opposition, his government is building two of the world's largest mosques in Baghdad and has lavished patronage on Shiite Muslim shrines. Across the capital, two icons of Hussein are prevalent: One features him firing a rifle into the air; the other portrays him in prayer.

Since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the government has shuttered bars along Abu Nawas Street, a thoroughfare that take its name from a medieval poet who scandalized Baghdadis with poetry of wine and women. "God is great" was emblazoned on the Iraqi flag. Religious leaders estimate that over the past decade, more than 100 mosques have been constructed in Baghdad, a far cry from just 20 years ago, when the government was known to arrest people solely on the grounds of regular visits to a mosque.

"The government has either decided to use the spread of this phenomenon or to yield to it," said Wamid Nadhmi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University.


Shadid then further cites this professor:

To him, the veil is the most visible symbol of that religious resurgence. At his university, he said, few if any women covered their hair in the 1970s. In the 1980s, when the revolution in neighboring Iran had its greatest influence abroad, a handful adopted the veil. Today, he said, a majority wear it.

Most striking to him was a televised meeting two months ago of the Federation of Iraqi Women, once a symbol of the rights the secular Baath Party bestowed on women. He said virtually all the women in attendance were veiled.

"The Baath Party has become an Islamic party," Sheik Mustafa Abbas Zaidi, who delivers the sermon at Baghdad's 14th of July Mosque, said without irony. "Now, even the president prays five times a day."


The impact of the Islamization campaign is clearly visible in post-Saddam Iraq. In April 2004, Middle East scholar Fawaz Gerges noted the following study of Iraqi insurgents:

In the first field study conducted in the Sunni Triangle and based on a large random sample of insurgents killed, Suleiman Jumeili, who teaches at the Center for International Relations at Baghdad University and lives in Fallujah, discovered that 80 percent of all those killed were Iraqi Islamist activists. His interviews with their friends and relatives showed that these young men were inspired by the example of "sacrifice and martyrdom" that is the hallmark of the Palestinian Hamas organization and Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

According to Mr. Jumeili, only 13 percent of the dead insurgents were motivated by nationalist sentiments and only 2 percent were die-hard Baathists; foreign Islamists represented 5 percent. Of those 8,500 insurgents imprisoned by U.S. troops, 70 percent are also indigenous Islamists. (When pressed, U.S. commanders conceded that only 150 - less than 2 percent - are foreigners.)


As noted in the May 31st New York Times, the same Sunni clerics who preached jihad under Saddam have emerged as the political and ideological focal point of the insurgency. Karl Zinsmeister, in his excellent article "The Guerilla War" from the April/May 2004 American Enterprise, also remarked on the role of Wahhabi clerics in fostering violence and anti-Americanism in Iraq.

Saddam's support for Islamism was not limited to his own country. As Hayes shows, the Baathist regime was quite willing to seek support from, and provide assistance to, Islamists from outside Iraq. Saddam had a long track record of supporting, financing and harboring Islamist radicals, from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980's to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Tawhid network in 2002. As part of this effort, Hayes notes that Saddam and his regime convened a number of "popular Islamic conferences" in Baghdad, which featured Islamists from around the Arab world. Earlier scholars, such as Bassam Tibi, have also noted these conferences. As Tibi points out in his book, The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder, the January 1991 PIC saw radical Islamists from around the region actually proclaim Saddam to be the new Caliph, the rightful ruler of the entire Muslim world. As Tibi also notes, Iraqi intelligence "worked closely with leading fundamentalist groups." (p.41)

This does not mean that Saddam was actually an Islamist, any more than he was a committed secularist. Saddam and his sons certainly didn't live like pious Muslims. Fundamentally, Saddam was an opportunist willing to adopt almost any ideological position or work with almost anyone in order to advance his own goals and interests. As Hayes convincingly shows, that "anyone" almost certainly included Osama bin Laden. There are, of course, other arguments that can be made against the existence of an Iraq-al-Qaeda connection. I will be addressing some of them in the coming days. However, the idea that Saddam's "secularism" made such a relationship an a priori impossibility can no longer be taken seriously.

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